Monthly Archives: February 2013


Well, it’s been a good two weeks since I last posted, and that might as well be two years from the perspective of perpetual connectivity that defines the blogosphere.  Sorry about that.  We’re running a job search for a new U. S. historian at Wheaton, and that has been tremendously time consuming. We’re also addressing last-minute logistics for a distinguished visiting lecturer, Clemson University Professor Vernon Burton, who will be on campus next week delivering two public addresses pertaining to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  These are good tasks to have, but they have absorbed most of my extra time and energy.

I know that I promised in my last post that I was through with President Obama’s inaugural address, but it turns out I was wrong.  (My students will tell you that I have a habit of offering multiple “final” points in my lectures, repeatedly raising and then dashing their hopes of getting out of class early.)  One of the axioms that I bring to my teaching is that an effective way to stretch the mind is to challenge the heart.  This is because the kind of thinking that has the potential to be truly transformative comes most naturally when something we feel deeply about is called into question.  One of my students put it this way in a recent reflection: “In my own historical study I have found that the issues that carry an emotional component are the ones that I study the best. . . . I pour so much more time and energy and thought into a subject that pulls at my heartstrings.”

I mention this because I sense that in a previous post I struck a nerve with a few readers.  (See “The Rhetoric of the President’s Address—Digging More Deeply.”)  We are so deeply immersed in our contemporary “rights” culture that it is hard for us to imagine an alternative.  We take for granted that we have inalienable natural rights, and our main argument with the unbelieving culture around us involves the question of where those rights come from.  This puts us in the ironic position of citing the Deist son of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, to remind the culture that our rights are not suspended in a vacuum, but that they have been given us by our Creator.

One of the key principles in thinking historically is remembering the crucial importance of context.  We engage the past in search of wisdom for the present, but if we are to understand rightly what the past has to say to us, we first need to understand the ideas that we encounter in their historical context.

Jefferson’s reference to “inalienable rights” that include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” comes almost verbatim from the late-seventeenth-century political philosopher John Locke.  Scholars disagree about Locke’s private religious beliefs, but we can agree that much of Locke’s public argument contradicted orthodox Christian doctrine.  Most notably, Locke overtly denied Paul’s teaching in Romans 2 that God has inscribed His law in our hearts.  God has given us no conscience or innate sense of right and wrong, Locke argued.  Our primary gift from God at birth is the faculty of reason, and He intends for us to rely on reason in determining how we are to treat one another.

According to Locke, the process of discovering the “law of nature” and the inalienable rights that ensue is a process of applying reason to experience.  It is also, at its heart, a process of the rational pursuit of self-interest.  By nature, none of us wants to be killed, or enslaved, or have our property stolen, Locke theorized, and over time we logically conclude that one of the ways we protect ourselves from such a fate is to refrain from killing, enslaving, and stealing the property of others.  If most individuals exercise such self-control, the societies we form will be societies in which we are more likely to get what we want, which is actually a pretty good definition of “right” as Americans currently employ the term.  (I am reminded of historian Robert Wiebe’s definition of “right” in his book Self-Rule: that “delightful euphemism for ‘what I want.’”)

One of the commentators to my earlier post acknowledged that the language of “rights” is not prevalent in the Bible but asked if I was trying to argue that anything not expressly spelled out in scripture was, by definition, unchristian.  Not at all.  My point is simply that we have not thought very deeply about the concept of rights, and that because ideas come to us embedded in historical contexts, we ignore those contexts at our peril.  If we thought more deeply about the context of Jefferson’s assertion, we might understand more readily how it is that the principles of the Declaration have come to justify a radically individualistic vision in which the autonomous individual is the constituent element of society and all other social groups (family, church, community) must defer to the individual and the paternalistic state that protects him.

Thinking Christianly about the Declaration, we might conclude that Jefferson’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” is true in certain respects but not in all.  Here let me end by quoting at length from Christian political scientist James Stoner’s 2005 essay “Is there a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”  According to Stoner, the “self-evident truths” in the Declaration

do not give an adequate account of the family, the fundamental institution of social life. . . . The family is built not around equality, but around the inequality of parent and child.  Precisely the most basic meaning of Jefferson’s statement of equality—that no man is the natural ruler or the natural subject of another—is not true of this relation, for the parents are surely the natural rulers of their dependent children.  [Beyond this,] the family is first and foremost not about rights, but about duties; even the right of children to care and education is abstract and vague compared to the duties of parents to provide and instruct and the duty of children to obey and learn. . . . [Furthermore,] the end of the family is only incidentally the security of rights; it is principally provision and nurture in an environment formed by love.

Much food for thought here.


President Obama’s second inaugural address is already rapidly fading from public memory, but I hope that you will indulge one more comment on the president’s rhetoric.  In previous posts, I have stressed the important symbolic role that presidential inaugurals play in our collective definition of what America stands for.  I have also argued that, as Christians seeking to “take every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), we need to go far beyond merely counting the president’s references to God.  Thinking Christianly and historically about such important rituals involves far more than parsing the president’s prose to determine whether he has paid sufficient homage to our purported Christian heritage.

Regardless of the terminology employed, we need to be evaluating the president’s rhetoric in light of scriptural principles.  We shouldn’t just ask whether the president defines our nation as Christian.  We need to be asking the far more difficult question of whether the statements that he makes are consistent with Christian precepts.  This comes more naturally when scrutinizing specific policy proposals.  Although devout Christians can and do disagree about the government’s proper stance concerning homosexual rights, women in combat, or governmental obligations to the poor, to name three examples, many of us will think through the president’s positions on those issues by measuring them against our own understandings of biblical teaching.

We’re not nearly as careful to scrutinize the tributes that the president pays to America and Americans.  As I noted in my last post, we need to be asking of the president’s rhetoric—and of political rhetoric more generally—not only what it says about God, but also what it says about us.  A knowledge of American history can help in this process, not by showing us how to evaluate what the president says, but by helping us more fully to see what he says, to be sensitive to claims that are so familiar to us that we have come to take them for granted and to accept them as self-evident.

Let me explain what I mean.  One of life’s paradoxes is that many of the values that most shape our worldviews are often invisible to us.  They involve beliefs that are so widely agreed on that we seldom hear them debated.  Never hearing them debated, we come to see them as so obviously beyond question that there is little reason to think deeply about them.  With little reason to think deeply about them, we soon stop thinking about them at all.  And when we stop thinking about them, there is a sense in which we literally cease to see them.  They may be shaping us, but they are invisible to us.

Here is where the study of the past can be so powerfully illuminating.  In studying other times and places, we frequently come face to face with values that are very different from our own, held by people who would find our own views mystifying, illogical, or even repulsive.  By exploding our reassuring conception of our values as unquestionable and unquestioned, the study of the past can make the present seem strange to us, helping us to re-evaluate what we have long taken for granted.

As a historian, one of the aspects of the president’s rhetoric that stands out to me is the praise that he heaps on the American people.  Listen to what he tells us about ourselves: we are characterized by “our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility,” our “resolve” and “our resilience.”  The members of our armed forces “are unmatched in skill and courage.”  Our “possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”  We are the “most powerful nation” in the world, and it is our responsibility to be “a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, [and] the victims of prejudice.”

I notice these comforting claims because I have spent a lot of time studying a period in American history when statesmen did not invariably flatter the public.  To draw from just one body of evidence, consider the arguments contained in the Federalist, the famous compilation of essays authored primarily by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in 1787-88 to support the ratification of the U. S. Constitution.  In the Federalist we read about “the folly and wickedness of mankind” and the “ordinary depravity of human nature.”  We are told that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious”; that “momentary passions and immediate interests” control human conduct more than “considerations of . . . justice”; that “the mild voice of reason . . . is but too often drowned . . . by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.”  Hamilton and Madison made no claim that Americans were exceptions to these generalizations.  Instead, the authors of the Federalist essays reminded their readers that, even in America, self-interest was the predominant drive in the human breast and virtue was as uncommon as it was precious and fragile.

A familiarity with American history, in other words, can help us to see as strange President Obama’s repeated tributes to his audience.  What we take for granted, the Federalist would have roundly denounced.  “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” Hamilton wrote in the opening essay, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”  We now routinely demand of our leaders such obsequious homage, however, and we have done so for more than a century and a half.  Writing in the 1830s, French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that no U. S. politician could long survive without paying a “tribute of adulation to his fellow citizens.”  As he noted so trenchantly in his classic Democracy in America, “the majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause, and there are certain truths which the Americans can learn only from strangers or from experience.”

Or from history, I would add.  But if history can make us more aware of the “tribute of adulation” that we demand of those we put in public office, it cannot, by itself, tell us whether such demands are “Christian” or not.  We turn to scripture and to church teaching for that.  We can only scrutinize carefully the values that we can see.  History can help to make the invisible visible, but it rightfully wields no moral authority.  As Christians, we must turn elsewhere for our standard of judgment.